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Wolves: No letup

Minnesota looks for ways to polish off Nuggets early

By Mike Wells

Knight Ridder Newspapers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Each of the past seven seasons, the Minnesota Timberwolves have made an early exit from the NBA playoffs.

But to hear them tell it now, they want to be the executioner -- at least from a basketball standpoint.

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That was their explanation Monday following a 106-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series. The Wolves let the Nuggets back in the game, temporarily, by allowing a 22-point lead to dwindle to five in the fourth quarter.

"You have to go out and execute, especially when you have a lead like that, because the other team is playing really loose and with nothing to lose," swingman Latrell Sprewell said. "They're going to keep playing. They kept chipping away at our lead."

Said guard Sam Cassell: "We have to execute."

And forward Kevin Garnett: "When we get away from running sets and doing what we do best, which is execute, we look sloppy."

Having trouble maintaining a substantial lead on an opponent isn't new for the Wolves. They lost four games in the regular season after taking double-digit leads. They hung on to beat San Antonio last month after blowing a 15-point lead.

It's easy to lose focus and start playing more freely because the game seems out of reach. Instead of moving the ball around to get the best shot, players are jacking up three-pointers or trying to take the ball to the basket without any rebounders underneath.

It took 12 points by Cassell after the Nuggets closed the gap for the Wolves to seal the outcome.

"When you get up big, you have a tendency to go away from what got you there," Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. "You get caught up in the emotion, usually when you're on a big run. All of a sudden, you're looking to make plays instead of making basic plays. I think if you noticed, every time we called a timeout and settled our guys down, we got back onto runs."

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Saunders called a timeout after Francisco Elson's bucket made it 80-75, and the Wolves responded with a 7-1 run to increase their lead to 11.

The Wolves' offense sputtered a bit because Garnett was saddled with foul trouble most of the game.

With Garnett out, Cassell (40 points) had to carry the load, and his teammates stood around the perimeter as he tried to score. The Wolves were outscored 32-17 when Garnett was on the bench.

"He's our inside force," Cassell said.

"When he goes out of the game there's going to be a drop, no doubt about it. We have to do a better job of not letting it drop that low and maintain what we've been doing."

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